The Mother of Beauty

I saw with my own eyes the Sibyl at Cumae hanging in a cage, and when the boys said to her: “Sibyl, what do you want?” she answered: “I want to die.”

Petronius, The Satyricon.

From man’s blood-sodden heart are sprung
Those branches of the night and day
Where the gaudy moon is hung.
What’s the meaning of all song?
“Let all things pass away.”

Yeats “Vacillation”

 

Death is the mother of beauty, mystical,
Within whose burning bosom we devise
Our earthly mothers waiting, sleeplessly.

Wallace Stevens, “Sunday Morning”

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In the catalogue of alienations we Late Empire citizens suffer – estrangement from nature, God, our neighbors, ourselves – our estrangement from death is often omitted. We no longer encounter death on a daily basis. Most of us don’t raise chickens to wring their necks, pluck their feathers, excise their entrails. When our loved ones die, we no longer remove their clothes, wash their corpses, and dress them for one last family photo in the parlor.

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Of course, our lack of exposure to death makes it much easier to lock it away down deep in the cellar of our consciousness, which might not be such a bad thing given that nothing’s more life negating than death obsession. On the other hand, our isolation from the cold hard facts our ancestors dealt with – butchering animals, infant mortality, etc. – might have contributed to a delusion many seem to suffer, i.e death is unnatural.

A few years ago, an acquaintance’s father, a man approaching ninety, was lying comatose in a hospital. Each day, on Facebook this acquaintance updated his father’s situation, which, not surprisingly, was rather uneventful – the opening and closing of an eye, a sense from a nurse that the old man experienced discomfort when bathed. My acquaintance and visitors read the Bible to him aloud as they sat and prayed for a miracle. This acquaintance battled his father’s physicians who wanted to transfer him to hospice care while the son perceived opening an eye as a harbinger of “the complete recovery” for which he so ardently prayed.

Most of the Facebook commentators were essentially enablers writing messages like “Sounds very encouraging!!! The doctors could be totally wrong……the body can heal in ways that only God knows” or “That’s great. God is in controll” (sic) or “God is the ultimate physician:-).”

A contempt for science and doctors ran through those Facebook posts, and the commentary that followed. No wonder people don’t believe in evolution or global warming if they believe a comatose man dying of an infection brought on my the removal of a cancerous lung tumor could very well attain a complete recovery and enter robustly into his ninth decade.

dead doe in a frozen pond in North Carolina

dead doe in a frozen pond in North Carolina

However, much more horrible than death would be eternal life in an ever aging husk of a body. Not only did the Sibyl at Cumae consider it a drag (see above), but we also have corroborating evidence from Chaucer’s “The Pardoner’s Tale.” When a trio of churls accost an ancient man and ask him why he still has the gall to remain alive, he replies,

Not even Death, alas! my life will take;
Thus restless I my wretched way must make,
And on the ground, which is my mother’s gate,
I knock with my staff early, aye, and late,
And cry: ‘O my dear mother, let me in!
Lo, how I’m wasted, flesh and blood and skin!
Alas! When shall my bones come to their rest?

Why, I wonder, would such devout Christians want to forestall the eternity of bliss that awaited that good man? And the father was a good man, a great provider devoted to his family and his God.

The answer, of course, is love.  Most of us love our parents.  We don’t want them to go.  I miss my own father’s sardonic witticisms, my mother’s hoarse cackle of a laugh. My acquaintance devotedly loved his father and didn’t want to think of living life without him.

Is that so wrong?

[cue Evangelical voice]: Let us turn to Ecclesiastes 3:1-4.

To everything there is a season
And a time to every purpose under heaven.

A time to be born and a time to die;
a time to plant and a time to pluck up what is planted . . .

Like I said, our aged loved ones’ passing is melancholy, and we miss them when they’re gone. I have had a couple of dreams about my mother recently, and I awake missing her. Nevertheless, her time had come, and she was rather fortunate given that she didn’t have suffer for long the feebleness that Larkin descries in “The Old Fools.”

What do they think has happened, the old fools,
To make them like this? Do they somehow suppose
It’s more grown up when your mouth hangs open and drools,
And you keep on pissing yourself, and can’t remember
Who called this morning? Or that, if they only chose,
They could alter things back to when they danced all night,
Or went to their wedding, or sloped arms some September?
Or do they fancy there’s really been no change,
And they’ve always behaved as if they were crippled or tight,
Or sat through days of thin continuous dreaming
Watching light move? If they don’t (and they can’t) it’s
strange: Why aren’t they screaming?

Yep, there are worse things than death.

The Struggle Itself

Each weekday morning when Judy’s getting her 96-straight hours of EPOCH at Roper, I pull into the Doughty Street Parking Lot around 7,  just when the hospital staff switches from day to night shift. As I cross Doughty on foot, Judy’s morning paper in hand, I work against the oncoming pedestrian traffic of off-duty nurses, technicians, engineers, many in their uniforms. Nurses in their navy blue combinations and high-priced athletic shoes seem especially happy.  I see them walking in groups of three, smiling, chatting, heading to their cars. They work 3 day-12 hour shifts in a fulfilling profession; nevertheless they’re delighted at the moment to be free.

(Now, what do they do? Devour a delicious breakfast and slurp down a bloody mary before drifting off in front of the Today Show?)

Going with my flow, the on-coming staff marches in, but, even though they seem relatively eager to start work, their affect isn’t nearly as upbeat as their departing colleagues. Then again, we aint talking all doctors and nurses here. Some of these people’s jobs don’t seem fulfilling at all, like those men awkwardly manipulating box-stacked carts into narrow elevators, like those cafeteria workers breathing for hours the odor of hospital food, like the crew out front dealing with valet parking.

Their minutes probably crawl by.

MC Escher: Convex and Concave

MC Escher: Convex and Concave

Of course, I’m on the way to work myself to shift through dozens of emails before advisory, and if I’m brave enough, to peek at the day’s school calendar, an absurd, way-too-busy color-coded chart of lines and rectangles that look as if they could be the work of MC Escher. We ride a rotating schedule – either Week A or Week B — and when I arrive at work on a Friday morning, people often greet me with the salutation “Happy Friday” or comment sunnily “it’s Friday.” Some time during the day I’ll receive an email inviting me to a “happy hour” in some conveniently located spirit-stocked decompression chamber.

TGIF!

Mythically speaking, labor is one of Adam’s curses, punishment for his uxoriousness, his casting his lot with Eve instead of Yahweh, which brought death into the world and all our woe, e.g. work — in Adam’s case tilling “cursed ground” that produces “thorns and thistles” — in my case dealing with an educational agenda that might be likened to a jewel box of tangled necklaces — academics, sports, service, chapels, assemblies, advisories, peer reviews, study halls. Or think of circus clowns, not leaving a car one after another after another, but entering a car one after another after another.

Actually, I interpret the Eden myth as a story about the shift from hunting/gathering to agriculture, the shift from running around half naked to the natural pulse of the earth’s heartbeat to our settling down to the soul-crushing repetitiveness of the punch clock.  Thus, the knowledge of good and evil becomes the knowledge of how to cultivate plants from seeds, which many scholars believe was a discovery made by women, the gatherers of edible plants. And, of course, settled communities brought us the establishment of property and its evil twin poverty.  I maintain that Amazonian tribespeople untouched by Western civilization live more meaningful lives than the average American who watches five hours of TV a day.

There’s a cool Philip Larkin poem about what a bitch work is called “Toads.” It goes like this:

Toads

Why should I let the toad work

Squat on my life?

Can’t I use my wit as a pitchfork

and drive the brute off?

 

Six days of the week it soils

With its sickening poison-

Just for paying a few bills!

That’s out of proportion.

 

Lots of folk live on their wits:

Lecturers, lispers,

Losels, loblolly-men, louts-

They don’t end as paupers;

 

Lots of folk live up lanes

With fires in a bucket,

Eat windfalls and tinned sardines-

They seem to like it.

 

Their nippers have got bare feet,

Their unspeakable wives

Are skinny as whippets-and yet

No one actually starves.

 

Ah, were I courageous enough

To shout Stuff your pension!

But I know, all too well, that’s the stuff

That dreams are made on:

 

For something sufficiently toad-like

Squats in me, too;

Its hunkers are heavy as hard luck,

And cold as snow,

 

And will never allow me to blarney

My way to getting

The fame and the girl and the money

All at one sitting.

 

I don’t say, one bodies the other

One’s spiritual truth;

But I do say it’s hard to lose either,

When you have both.

 

I’m with you, Philip. After listening to my litany yesterday about how frustrating teaching has become in the age of technology,  a colleague asked me why didn’t I retire.  A reasonable question given the frustrations I had just catalogued – parents having access to the grades I post on the website, shooting me emails that proliferate like mushrooms while I’m bouncing from meetings to covering detentions or contacting the help desk because the projection wire in one of the rooms where I teach doesn’t work.

Why don’t I retire?  Because I don’t want to. I eventually get bored in the summers if I’m not traveling or working on a project. I like interacting with students, instructing them about the bane of unnecessary linking verbs and the sloppiness of the “naked this” — not to mention the fun introducing them to the Wife of Bath or riding with them up the Congo with Marlow as we steam towards Mistah Kurtz.

It’s like what Camus says in “The Myth of Sisyphus.” –

I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.

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Pep Talk for Brazil

At the beginning of Budding Prospects, TC Boyle’s protagonist Felix Nasmyth confesses

I’ve always been a quitter.  I quit the Boy Scouts, the glee club, the marching band.  Gave up my paper route, turned my back on the church, stuffed the basketball team.  I dropped out of college, sidestepped the army with a 4-F on the grounds of mental instability, went back to school, made a go of it, entered a Ph.D. program in nineteenth-century British literature, sat in the front row, took notes assiduously, bought a pair of horn-rims, and quit on the eve of my comprehensive exams.  I got married, separated, divorced.  Quit smoking, quit jogging, quit eating red meat.  I quit jobs: digging graves, pumping gas, selling insurance, showing pornographic films in an art theater in Boston.  When I was nineteen I made frantic love to a pinch-faced, sack-bosomed girl I’d known from high school.  She got pregnant.  I quit town.

 

 

Pep Talk

[. . .] nor can foot feel, being shod.

Gerard Manley Hopkins

I know what it feels like to give up,
to say ‘that’s it — fuck it — I quit’.

No one over thirty can stand
blowhard braggarts like
William Ernest Henley
who bellowed

“It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul”

but who lost his eleven-year-old daughter
and died of tuberculosis at fifty-three.

No, give me unromantics like Philip Larkin
who “work all day” and “get half-drunk at night,”
who lie in bed in the mornings
squandering precious existence dreading death,
contemplating what it will be like
“Not to be anywhere,
And soon.”

“Nothing more terrible, nothing more true.”

Or tortured souls like Gerard Manley Hopkins
who “pitched past pitch of grief”
birthed dissonant poems that screech like talons
scratching across blackboard slate.

* * *

That’s right, Brazil, down by seven,
quit playing defense, get the goddamn thing over,
drive past the favelas to your sturdy houses afterwards,
get into to your beds, pull the covers up over your heads,
and with a flashlight read “Terrence, This Is Stupid Stuff:”

“Therefore, since the world has still

Much good, but much less good than ill,

And while the sun and moon endure

Luck’s a chance, but trouble’s sure,

I’d face it as a wise man would,

And train for ill and not for good.

’Tis true, the stuff I bring for sale

Is not so brisk a brew as ale:

“Out of a stem that scored the hand

I wrung it in a weary land.

But take it: if the smack is sour,

The better for the embittered hour;

It should do good to heart and head

When your soul is in my soul’s stead;

And I will friend you, if I may,

In the dark and cloudy day.

Amém!

yours truly running down a street in Rio

yours truly running down a street in Rio